HOUSTON – After Framber Valdez picked up Oswaldo Cabrera’s slow-rolling ground ball in the fifth inning, turned and lobbed uneventfully to first base, he and almost all the 41,700 fans on hand at Minute Maid Park let out a tentative exhale. And Valdez even allowed himself a little smile.
After all, he was on his way to pitching the Houston Astros into the driver’s seat of this American League Championship Series.
The Astros left-hander nearly sabotaged his handiwork with a costly fielding misadventure, yet a once-dominant New York Yankees team that’s since turned offensively stagnant could not make him pay for his transgressions. And after Valdez’s dominant seven innings and crafty bullpen work nailed down a 3-2 Game 2 victory Thursday night, this series is unfolding largely as expected:
The Astros have a 2-0 ALCS lead and need two wins in three games at Yankee Stadium to vanquish the Bombers for the third time in six years and return to their fourth World Series in that span.
ALCS GAME 1: Astros Chas McCormick, Jeremy Peña make Yankees pay
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And through two games, they are showing the top-to-bottom roster superiority forged by talents that date to the start of this Yankees-Astros epic trilogy in 2017 – along with burgeoning talents firmly establishing their October bona fides.
Put Alex Bregman in the first category. The third baseman slugged a three-run homer off Luis Severino in the third inning, his 14th career playoff home run in a run that began with the Astros’ now-disputed 2017 World Series title.
And put Valdez in the second. The core of this club has gradually changed since the 2019 revelation that their ’17 titlists utilized an illicit sign-stealing campaign that boosted their efforts and earned the public’s enmity. Valdez, though, became a core player in 2020, a talented but occasionally inattentive lefty who has blossomed into a playoff staple.
He was largely fabulous Thursday, pitching seven innings and striking out nine, finishing strong by striking out the side in his final inning, giving up no earned runs.
Alas, it was the two unearned runs of Valdez’s own creation that made this victory tenuous.
After Bregman’s three-run homer, Yankee slugger Aaron Judge started the fourth with a single. Giancarlo Stanton followed with an innocuous comebacker to Valdez, who turned an easy play into a game-changing adventure. He whirled toward first base, lost his footing and then compounded the matter by throwing wildly to the bag, putting the Yankee behemoths on second and third with nobody out.
It was a gift two runs, turning a dominant 3-0 lead into a 3-2 nailbiter. Yet the misplay and a subsequent mound visit seemed to fortify Valdez.
“We just said, let’s not let this be a big inning, let’s just continue to execute pitches and do exactly what you do,” Bregman recalled. “And every time he takes the mound we have a lot of confidence in him.”
After Gleyber Torres’ single plated the second run, Valdez struck out seven of the final 12 batters he faced, allowing just a Harrison Bader single. Included in there was his nifty pickup of Peraza’s slow roller down the first base line and tricky toss to first baseman Yuli Gurriel. No small task after his fourth-inning adventure.
He ended it by punching out Josh Donaldson, Kyle Higashioka and Peraza, removing his cap, uttering some words of thanks, smiling, pointing to the crowd and then running the gauntlet of celebrating teammates after setting himself up to notch his fifth postseason win, against two losses.
Valdez cited his work with a sports psychologist this season to help him remain focused, and that if this occured a few seasons ago, “I probably would have lost all focus there at that moment.”
“You always worry about a young player being able to shake off something like that, but the guys told him, ‘Hey, forget it. We still got the lead. Go out and pitch.’ He might have shut ’em out had he not had his own miscues.
“But that shows you we all got something to work on and he’s been working on it. He’ll be better.
“But I tell you, he was outstanding.”
There was one more exhalation to come.
Reliever Bryan Abreu’s one-out walk to Bader brought Judge up as the winning run in the eighth. He pasted an Abreu pitch to right field, sending Kyle Tucker to the fence. A little hop – just high enough to slide the morning paper under his spikes – enabled Tucker to haul the ball in just above the short wall.
According to Statcast, it was a home run in just one major league park – Yankee Stadium.
Perhaps that’s why Yankees manager Aaron Boone thought it was gone and believed the open roof on a 78-degree night for Game 2 – it was closed for Game 1 – had an impact. A stiff breze blew from right to left field, perhaps zapping some of the juice from Judge’s 106.3-mph shot.
“I hit it to the wrong part of the park, that’s for sure,” says Judge.
“I think the roof open kind of killed us,” says Boone. “I didn’t think like he smoked it, like no-doubter, but it felt like his homers to right.”
Perhaps the notorious short porch back at home will aid the Bombers for Games 3 and 4 and, if they’re fortunate enough, Game 5. Yet shifting the series is both a good- and bad-news scenario for them.
The good news: Aces Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes will start Games 3 and 4, respectively.
The bad news: The Astros have put them in this hole while leadoff batter and playoff legend Jose Altuve has fallen into an 0 for 23 hole to start this postseason, and slugger Yordan Alvarez has been held to a harmless single in two games.
No, the Astros have done it with all their parts, from No. 9 batter Martin Maldonado reaching base all three times he was up, to rookie shortstop Jeremy Pea getting yet another hit in front of another huge home run, and then making a deft grab of a Bregman deflection to create a 5-6-3 putout in the sixth.
They can afford to exhale. The Yankees? More like the air is almost out of their postseason balloon.